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Spain's Austerity Cuts Injure Elderly, Disabled And Their Caretakers

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A THOUSAND CUTS SPAIN
Madrid demonstrators protest against the Spanish government's austerity measures on July 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Paul White) | AP

This article is part of a Huffington Post series on the global impact of austerity -- "A Thousand Cuts" -- from affordable housing funds lost in San Francisco to increasing class sizes in New York, food inspector cuts in Canada, disability benefits taken away in the United Kingdom, decimation of France's solar industry, and more. Click here for information on how you can help people affected by these measures.

Juan Antonio de la Cruz, 18, is a fan of 'La Roja,' Spain's national soccer team. He wears the team jersey proudly, but he has never been to a game. There are other priorities.

Juan Antonio was born with cerebral palsy, and most of his family's resources are spent caring for him. The government support that helped him and other people with similar disabilities -- known in Spain as "dependents" -- is dwindling, thanks to austerity measures undertaken to reduce the deficit, so his family bears an increasing share of the burden.

An assistant, paid with public money, used to aid Juan Antonio's mother, María Dolores Sánchez Maldonado, 56, also known as Lola, by waking him up every morning, bathing and dressing him, and helping to get him ready for school. Another assistant would spend time with him in the afternoon.

But last year's regional elections in Madrid confirmed the absolute majority of the center-right Popular Party (Partido Popular), which had campaigned on a platform that included budget cuts. On May 23, 2011, the day after the vote, Lola received a call from government officials. "At 8:15 a.m., they called me to announce that they were taking away that support," she said.

Public aid contributed 700 euros ($920) to help pay for the wheelchair Juan Antonio needs, which his family bought a few years ago and which cost more than 4,500 euros ($5,500) in all. The wheelchair is almost an extension of his 77-pound body -- he uses it most of the day, constantly shifting and changing his posture to avoid circulation problems. Despite his family's investment of an additional 2,000 euros ($2,450) in replacement parts, the chair has worn down, and Lola is thinking about buying another one. This time, though, she won't receive any support from the government.

Yet Lola considers herself to be among the "fortunate" ones. "I can allow myself to take care of my kid because I don't smoke, drink, go to the hairdressing salon or put on makeup," she said. "I've been working for many years, and I can count on my spouse's help to take care of my son and come through."

Juan Antonio will always need care. He barely speaks, has little motor control and must be fed through a tube in his navel. The state, however, is less willing to assist him than before. Last month, the Spanish government announced cuts under the Dependency Law (Ley de Dependencia), a legislative effort approved in 2006 that guaranteed for the first time public aid for people who cannot physically look after themselves. Over the next two years, the government plans to slash almost 3 billion euros ($3.7 billion) from the funds allotted to the dependency program.

Although it's still not clear what measures will be taken to achieve those cuts, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's administration has said that it plans to reduce funding by 15 percent and that it will place a two-year moratorium on processing applications for dependency funding.

"A lot of people will die waiting for the [financial] aid," said Purificación Causapié, a former managing director of the Institute of the Elderly and Social Services (Instituto de Mayores y Servicios Sociales) who worked for the previous socialist government.

As a consequence of the austerity measures, Lola will have to start covering 50 percent of the cost of her son's medicines, a 10 percent increase from what she pays now. "Just last year, I spent 1,500 euros ($1,840) on his medicines, which are partially covered [by the government]," she said. "But this year, I believe I'll reach 2,000 euros ($2,450) due to this raise."

Juan Antonio can't control his bladder, so he needs at least five diapers per day, for which his mother must pay. In September, the sales tax on diapers will rise from 8 to 21 percent, a hike that has driven Lola to forgo her summer vacation this year to save money.

The sales tax on the small needles through which Juan Antonio is fed is also set to rise. Lola generally uses one a week, but over time she has learned, she said, "the tricks to make them last a little bit longer."

"What I don't understand is why they don't raise the taxes of jewelry, luxury cars, or rich people and the enterprises they set up to evade their fiscal responsibilities," she said.

Lola's own health could also be affected by the increasing cost of medicine. She suffers with fibromyalgia and is recovering from breast cancer.

It's summer in Madrid, and for now Juan Antonio can "do what he like to do most: wander, see people and discover new places," his mother said. Fortunately, as Lola pointed out, those are all inexpensive activities.

In a cafeteria, she and Juan Antonio run into María Teresa Lozano, who just received a letter from the regional government denying her long-sought financial compensation for the cost of taking care of her mother, who died four years ago. Her case is typical of that facing caregivers of elderly dependents, who constitute the majority of the 800,000 Spaniards receiving any type of public assistance.

According to Marisa Soleto, director of the advocacy group Women's Foundation (Fundación Mujeres), decreases in this type of financial aid hit women hardest. "Women, who are traditionally the ones who more often take care of their elderly parents, have a lower salary than men," she said. "In reality, what is being created [by this policy] is a group of women with a higher risk of poverty."

Lola and María Teresa curse their luck, although they repeat that they could be worse off. They have a plan. "When we turn 67 [the legal retirement age], we'll buy some guns, rob a bank and go to jail," Lola joked. "We'll have four meals every day, and they'll take care of us."

By her side, Juan Antonio also smiled, though it's difficult to know to what extent he is aware of what is going on. What happens to him if public aid keeps being cut back, Lola wonders.

"Juan Antonio is my source of worries, but he is also my motivation. I pray to God that he will take him before he takes me," Lola said, as tears filled her eyes.

But that is likely far in the future, and Lola knows she still has a lot of fighting ahead of her.

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